In Major League umpire Tripp Gibson’s hometown, the streets currently have no name. The street signs, stop signs and stoplights are gone, and many of the buildings one would use as frames of reference and triggers of memory have crumbled.
Mayfield, Ky. -- the town of about 10,000 in the southwest corner of the Bluegrass State that has been called “ground zero” of the deadly tornado outbreak on Dec. 11 that killed at least 88 people across five states -- is Gibson’s hometown. And right now, it is unrecognizable.
“The movie ‘Twister’ is nothing compared to the damage I’ve seen,” Gibson said Tuesday. “To me, it’s just as eerie as New York City, Times Square, during COVID. It just doesn’t seem real. The landmark buildings that you use as waypoints are gone. You’re thinking, ‘I don’t even know where I am in this city right now.’”
Gibson, 40, lives in Seattle now. But within a day of a tornado touching down in Mayfield and devastating the community, he was traveling back to help family members assess and repair damage. And through Umps Care, the MLB umpires’ charitable arm, Gibson and his colleagues are raising funds to support the relief effort for others.
Donations are being solicited at the Umps Care website to aid the Independence Bank - Mayfield-Graves County Tornado Relief Fund. Although Gibson’s family has been personally impacted by the tornado destruction, all funds from this effort are going to the Graves County community, at large, not Gibson’s family.
“It’s going to take weeks, months, years to rebuild this town back to what people want it to be,” Gibson said. “When all the media leaves -- and I’ve never seen so many people here in my life -- that’s when the real work is going to begin. The destruction is going to be here, and people are trying to rebuild their lives.”
In Mayfield, around 100 workers at a candle factory were trapped when the building collapsed. At last count, eight were confirmed dead and another eight were missing. Across the state, at least 74 people were confirmed dead and around 100 missing.
The tornado that struck Mayfield had a maximum width of three-quarters of a mile and a touchdown of 227 miles.
Growing up in the area, surrounded by corn, soybean and tobacco fields, Gibson, who went to Graves County High School and then Murray State, became accustomed to tornado sirens and heard many stories of brief touchdowns.
So when he was on the phone with his father, Sonny, on Friday around 5 p.m. CT and heard a siren wail in the background, he didn’t think much of it. Gibson and his wife went to a Christmas party, as planned.
Just a few hours later, however, Gibson started getting text messages from a sister who lives in Tampa about what was transpiring back home.
“I started Googling headlines to see if there were any photos from anybody [in Mayfield],” he said. “Nothing was popping up. That’s when I knew they were in the middle of this and that nobody was able to communicate with modern technology. I was extremely worried. That was a really rough night.”
Thankfully, Gibson eventually got word that his family members were safe and their houses were fine. But Sonny Gibson’s rental business, which was started by Sonny’s father in 1949 to help returning service members, is one of many devastated by the tornado wreckage. The office building and many of the roughly 100 pieces of rental property the company owns and operates were destroyed.
Gibson booked a flight from Seattle to Atlanta to Nashville, where fellow umpire D.J. Reyburn picked him up to drive him to Mayfield on Sunday. The two stopped at a Lowe’s hardware store on the way to gather supplies, then went to work repairing roofs, cutting tree branches and retrieving belongings from collapsed buildings.
“We’re trying to figure out what we can do to salvage my Dad’s company,” Gibson said. “There are adjusters everywhere walking through town and FEMA is here. We’re trying to get everything sorted out so it helps my Dad and his business. Once the insurance claims happen, I’ll come back again after Christmas, and we’re going to have to remove a lot of rubble from these properties.”
Gibson said many of the people he has come across in Mayfield these last few days have managed to maintain a positive attitude despite the devastation.
“People literally crawled out of the rubble to life,” Gibson said. “One guy was standing in his closet, and nothing was left standing but that closet and the roof above. They’re not angry, they’re just thankful to be alive. And I believe God put me here to help out, so I’m thankful for that.”
The Umps Care initiative is another way for Gibson, who has been a full-time Major League ump since 2015, to help.
“When I first got here, I wanted to help my family,” Gibson said. “I’m a husband and a son and a grandson and a nephew first. But a few people reached out to do interviews, and if bringing awareness of what happened here from working through Major League Baseball can raise funds through Umps Care, then I’m all for it.”